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FX network vacillates on a comedy to die for

Thursday, June 07, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Once a taboo subject, death is now Hot! Hot! Hot! in prime time. Consider all the demises in last month's season finales: Jackie April Jr. on "The Sopranos," Mrs. Landingham on "The West Wing," Richard Bay on "The Practice" and Buffy Summers on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Death got a firmer grip on TV with Sunday's premiere of "Six Feet Under," HBO's sad-soaked drama about a family-run funeral home.

If ever there were a time for a show with death as a key character, it would be now. So it's surprising cable network FX is waffling about an unusual comedy series called "Bad News, Mr. Swanson." It stars Frank Whaley as Clark Swanson, a sad sack of a man whose wife has left him and who gets no respect from his boss or family. Then he learns he has a terminal illness.

The pilot is complete and the network ordered 13 episodes months ago, but "Bad News" still hasn't gone into production. Blame the politics of taste. One of the top dogs at Fox, parent company of FX, got cold feet about the series. Now husband and wife writers/creators Lisa DeBenedictis and Daryl Rowland have been asked to submit a script for a second episode, a step that usually comes before a network orders a series.

Some concern over the show's content is understandable. After all, the lead character receives a death sentence in the first episode, albeit one that's delayed. Clark is diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow that can be dormant for years.

So is this a comedy about cancer? Ha, ha, ha? Actually, it's not about cancer. It's about a guy who gets a zest for life only after he receives a terminal diagnosis.

"We never laugh at cancer or Clark so much as the way people react to death," Rowland said. "It's the ultimate taboo in Western culture."

Edgy and different, "Bad News" is often laugh-out-loud funny, especially in scenes of the preposterousness Clark encounters. He tries to quit his job, but human resources won't let him. He stands up to his boss for the first time and ends up with a raise.

Character actor Lane Smith steals scenes as Clark's adulterous, critical father. John Lydon (a k a Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols) plays the Grim Reaper, who taunts Clark. And in a jarring bit of casting, Marcia Cross plays Clark's doctor. She previously starred as crazy Dr. Kimberly Shaw on "Melrose Place" and seeing her in a white lab coat again brings that character to mind.

"Bad News" was originally developed for HBO, but the network passed on it when it picked up "Six Feet Under" (understandably, two shows about death would be one too many). FX executives are high on the series, which tested well with focus groups. Now the highest muckety-mucks in the Fox hierarchy just have to be convinced. If they give it a green light, the show could be on the air by January.

For DeBenedictis, "Bad News" hits close to home: Her father was diagnosed with the same illness as Clark in 1997 and has remained asymptomatic since. DeBenedictis suffers from multiple sclerosis and has had her own experiences dealing with the medical community.

"You kind of have to go to humor to be a survivor," she said. "So far, across the board, our biggest supporters are people who have cancer in their family or have it themselves."

Judging by a sneak peak at the pilot, "Bad News" could be good news for television viewers who crave a comedy that's different.

'Buzz' happens

After several years of trying, Cindy Iannarelli's efforts to sell a Pittsburgh-produced children's business show have met with success.

Originally titled "Honey Money," the series is now called "The Buzz" and cable network Starz Encore has ordered 13 episodes for its commercial-free channel aimed at middle school students, Wam!

Wam! isn't available on AT&T, but it is on Adelphia Cable's digital tier and satellite. Iannarelli is in discussions with WQED-TV about carrying "The Buzz" locally.

Production on field segments for "The Buzz" has begun and studio segments will be shot locally in August at a site that has yet to be determined. Starz Encore wants the show ready for air by October.

Iannarelli, who appears in "The Buzz" as a "helpful facilitator and teacher," said the program will be consumer business oriented. She's director of the Family Business Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the IUP School of Education has helped with the TV program's curriculum.

On the air

Squirrel Hill native Ed Castner has produced a 13-episode series that's airing on cable channel Animal Planet. "Thoroughbreds" (10:30 p.m. Tuesday, repeating 7 p.m. Saturday) chronicles a year on a family thoroughbred farm in Maryland.

Castner was director of photography on the project with his wife, Nancy Lebrun, serving as executive producer. Keith Carradine narrates this docudrama.

A bear of a story

Only KDKA was live on the scene as a bear was lured into a trap during the 11 p.m. newscast May 30. It was a serendipitous combination of luck and timing that made this well-produced live shot juggling act come off well.

Reporter Rebecca Hower, who joined the station last fall, was on the air live when the bear came into the shot a few yards away.

"Ken [Rice] had asked me a question and I was answering it when my photographer made some big eyes at me and was gesturing and I knew instantly [that the bear was back]," Hower said a week later. "I turned around and I didn't think I was acting scared, but on the tape you can see my eyes get really big and my voice goes up a little higher."

Hower, who likes animals and had a genuine personal interest in the story, did her homework. That preparedness helped her calmly fill air time while they waited for the bear to enter the trap. Her informative reports made good use of the live capability.

Kudos also to Rice for his quips ("Too bad you left your tranquilizer gun here at work," he said after the bear's first appearance).

Broken local news

In all media it's a game of "you win some, you lose some." KDKA was the only station with a live bear capture last week (a win!), but the station came up short Monday during a police standoff in Wilkinsburg (a loss!). WTAE and WPXI were live on the scene; KDKA had reports from anchors in the studio until almost an hour after it ended.

"We were probably not on top of that as quickly as we should have been," said news director Al Blinke. "We sent a crew and they got stuck in traffic. The center of our effort that day was to get Bob O'Connor on the air. We were the only people to have Bob live talking about his concession [in the Pittsburgh mayoral race]."

Even without the live shot, KDKA kept viewers posted on what was happening, but adding insult to injury, they threw a crude map on screen of the standoff location. It was made using the station's Stormtracker weather program. Where's a graphic artist when you need one?

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Thursday, June 07, 2001

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